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The traffic warden with the big heart

Tuesday, 19th February, 2019 7:10am

Story by Siobhan Cronin
The traffic warden with the big heart

John with broadcaster Ryan Tubridy on a visit to the town.

On the occasion of his retirement, John O’Carroll reflects on his almost 20 years as a traffic warden in West Cork. 

 

‘THEY’VE really taken you to their heart down here – and you’re a Dub AND a traffic warden!’  a friend of John O’Carroll’s told him one day in Clonakilty.

John smiles as he remembers the remark – one of the many warm responses he has had during his almost 20-year career as a traffic warden in West Cork.

Having recently retired from the role, on medical grounds, Finglas native O’Carroll has been reflecting on his three decades in his adopted county.

‘I was more of a tourist official at times, than a traffic warden, to be honest,’ he says, adding that if he was going to write his autobiography, he’d have to call it “Well, where is he?”

This is not a reference to angry motorists seeking him out but, in fact, the words spoken to him by two women disembarking off a bus from Dublin in 2002.

A few weeks before, Hollywood actor Liam Neeson had been in town to unveil the statue of Michael Collins in Clonakilty’s Emmet Square. It was a huge story and, when a bus pulled
up in front of John one afternoon the following month, and two Dublin women hopped out, the first words they uttered to the traffic warden were: ‘Well, where is he?’

‘Down there, at the edge of Emmet Square,’ was all John needed to say, and the two ladies were off down the street, happy out, heading for their beloved Collins.

Being in charge of traffic wasn’t a role that the young O’Carroll would have envisaged for himself. In Dublin, he had worked as a dancer, and later in shipping, an electrical firm, a legal firm, accountancy and then aviation.

He also qualified, in 1995, as an aromatherapist, two years before he moved to West Cork with his Cork city-born wife Sheila, to take a break from the bustle of the capital and set up in business here.

‘We came down and I realised it was taking quite a while to build up a client list. I noticed an ad in The Southern Star looking for a temporary traffic warden for the summer season in Schull with ‘no experience necessary’, so I applied.’

John was trained in by the Bantry warden and ‘had a blast’ that summer in the popular seaside town. ‘I photocopied a parking ticket and put it on each of the cars explaining that I would be keeping an eye on parking,’ he recalled. ‘You have to make a bit of a name for yourself at the start. Up until then they had awful problems with buses and trucks trying to get through the town, so they were delighted with me.’

That August he was asked if he would be able to cover for traffic warden Bernie Daly in Skibbereen for a bit, so he did. ‘When Bernie came back, they asked me to stay on and we worked together then, and then Tommy Nolan in Clonakilty was leaving and when I rang the Town Clerk to ask about his job, they said “When can you start?”. I said I’d need a week, and the rest, as they say, is history!’

John says that in general the public have been incredibly warm and supportive and the awkward customers have been few and far between. The man with the strong Dublin accent giggles as he remembers one particular visitor to the town whom he reprimanded for littering. ‘He shouted out the window of his car “ah, ya culchie!”.’

The first few days of any new traffic warden arriving into a town can be difficult, he admits, but adds: ‘But when people see the difference you are making, usually everything changes then. They realise I am not out to get them. All I wanted to do was keep the traffic flowing.’

When news of his retirement was posted on The Southern Star Facebook page, the outpouring of support included several stories from readers recalling John’s insistence on trying to find the owners of the cars illegally parked, before ticketing them.

He was known for trawling the cafés of Clonakilty looking for the offenders, to give them a chance to move, before being slapped with a fine.

‘If it meant going to a shop to find someone, rather than slapping a ticket on them, then that’s what I did. Bigger cities have more supervisors, so that’s not really an option for their traffic wardens. But, to be honest, people are more compliant anyway when they know you’re about.’

He would get a lot of people tipping him off about illegally parked cars, too, he says. ‘I found that when you give, you get a lot more back,’ he smiles.

‘We get training in dealing with aggressive people and you are told it’s not about you personally, but about the uniform and what you stand for. So I made sure I never walked away from a person until the issue was sorted, or I had explained to them that they were entitled to appeal a decision.’ 

In 2013 he was even given  a ‘Spirit of Clonakilty’ award, and he remembers the citation remarked on his use of ‘common sense’ in the job.

He did have one incident which marred the job briefly, though, when he was head-butted by a tourist in Clonakilty in February 2000. ‘I’ve had problems with my eye since then, but the support I got that time was phenomenal.’

The standard parking fine has more than doubled since John started in the nineties. ‘Back then I think it was £15, then it rose to €19 when the euro came in, and now it’s €40 if you pay within 28 days, or else it jumps to €60. But it’s €150 for parking in a disabled bay and I wouldn’t mind if that was €200 to be honest.’

He also gets pretty agitated about people parking in bus stops, because it can back up the traffic all through the town, so he has been known to stand in the bus stop until the bus arrives, to make sure the area is kept clear.

He has also been spotted helping elderly and infirm people off the bus when it arrives too, which led to him getting a lovely ‘thank you’ letter from CIE a few years back. Traffic wardens also have the power to issue litter and casual trading fines, but John says that one of his big bugbears is seeing unrestrained children in cars, and he wishes he had the power to prosecute those people too. ‘I actually saw a woman driving once, with an infant on her knee. If you stood and watched for a while, you would see an awful lot of it.’

Although he adored his job, John found the last few years difficult, due to back problems, which included having a spinal fusion operation in 2010, which worked for about three years.

In a former life, he was an international folk dancer. ‘In those days, there was no warm up and no warm down, and I’ve really had a bad back all my life.’

A few years after his operation, a prolapsed disc started to leak and, due to having Type II diabetes, healing has been very slow. ‘I had another operation in 2017 and it’s taking a long time to heal, so I don’t want to risk it any more, so I have taken early retirement on medical grounds now.’ 

He pays tribute to the indoor and outdoor staff of Cork County Council and singles out the ‘wonderful’ Justin England, the local municipal district officer, for his support.

In fact, he says that taking the job in Clonakilty was the best career move he ever made. And he has recently moved, with his wife Sheila, from his home in Skibbereen, to a new home in the town where he spent most of his career.

Of course, he will also be known for his involvement in the Red Cross for the last ten years, which he continues to volunteer with. ‘For about the last five years I have been the unit officer for the Clonakilty Unit, volunteering alongside some amazing people whose primary concern is to give back to their local community by way of providing medical cover at various events. We also have a very good youth group.  As well as learning life skills, I found the Red Cross is a way of meeting some wonderful people and making great friendships.’

With no other major plans yet, John is just beginning to enjoy the longest break he has had in his colourful career. ‘Working in Dublin Airport gave me the aviation bug and I still have a scanner that I listen into. But this was the longest job I ever had and, to be honest, I have loved every minute of it.’

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